New Tips For Dealing With Children's Anger (with a Real Life Example!)

Larissa Dann

‘How do I deal with my kids when they get angry and lash out?’ ‘What do I do when they just won’t listen to reason, and they blame me for everything?’

As a parent or carer, my guess is that at times we all deal with testing situations involving our child. Sometimes, our children might even get physical, hitting and kicking us.

What can we do?

Honestly . . . I don’t know that there is a magic answer that will help in every instance.

However, having an idea, a guide, on how to approach those heightened times of our child’s emotions, especially when those emotions seem directed at us, can be helpful.

Here is a process that helps me in these situations, illustrated by an example.


I have shared this example, and the steps, with hundreds of parents over the years, and the feedback is one of hope and relief. Finally, they have something new to try!


My now-adult son was not quite five years old. He was coping with some major changes in his life that were out of his control, and he was unaware of the impact of these changes on his life. I was also living through these changes, dealing with my own stress, and I was aware of the impact of the changes on my son.

The Situation

Early one morning, just after breakfast, my son, Ben*, was playing with a stuffed toy that had a zipper. However, the zipper got stuck. He became progressively frustrated with the stubborn zip, and then suddenly, I became the focus of his anger.

He began to yell, very loudly, blaming me for the stuck zipper. He hit me and kicked me as he told me how much he hated me. He was a very angry young boy!

My Response

For the previous five years, I had been fortunate to practice, and teach, an approach to parenting** that helped me respond constructively to many past situations. This time, however, my parenting skills were seriously going to be tested!


I did not feel threatened; I did not see him as trying to have power over me, or trying to control me. He was a little boy in difficult circumstances, he did not know how to deal with that stress, and I was his Mum. My job was to understand, and to help him help himself, while remaining true to myself.

Here is a breakdown of how I responded that day, and why.

Please note. I do not put this process into action as often as I’d like – because I am human, and I make mistakes. However, I look to these skills to help me repair my relationship with my child after an argument has gone awry.


1. Don’t take their anger personally. ‘It’s not about you – it’s about them’.

I am guided in much of my parenting by a deceptively simple tool. I think to myself ‘who owns the problem’ (a model developed by Thomas Gordon of Parent Effectiveness Training, PET). Another way of considering problem ownership is ‘whose needs are not being met’. Does the child own the problem, or the parent, or is it a shared problem?

To help me decipher whose needs are not being met, I am guided by emotions – the emotions of my child, and my own feelings.

So. In this example, my son was clearly unhappy. Very unhappy. Unfortunately, he was expressing his frustration by physically attacking me. Which then meant I was also unhappy (slight understatement!)

Importantly, however, I recognised that my son was not angry with me because of who I was.

He was suffering as a result of an unmet need – in this case, an event outside our relationship.

Similarly, a child who comes home from school and calls you names might be expressing fear from a bullying situation at school. Or a child who gets angry because they can’t have a biscuit before dinner, is frustrated because they may be gnawingly hungry right now!

Recognising that my son had a problem, and that his needs were not being met, stopped me from taking his behaviour personally.

I was then in a position to respond, rather than react.

2.  Separate your feelings from your child’s feelings; and your needs from your child’s needs

Once I recognised that my son’s behaviour was about him, not me, then I was led by my head (thinking), rather than my heart (emotion).

His presenting feeling was frustration and powerlessness, expressing itself as anger (see #3). My guess is that his unmet need was certainty and predictability (unknown adults were imposing substantial changes into his life without consulting him).

My emotion was surprise, then concern (for both him, and me). My unmet need was safety (to not be hurt!)

3.  Anger is a secondary feeling. Look for the primary feelings under anger - the 'Anger Iceberg'.

My son was clearly furious. But why? What feelings was he experiencing strongly enough to express as anger? My guess was that he felt extremely frustrated. By pinpointing 'frustration' in my Active Listening of my son, rather than using the broad brush feeling of 'anger', I helped my son feel heard and understood. He could then begin the process of calming himself through understanding himself.

Similarly, I could feel 'angry' at being hit and kicked, but what would my true feelings be? Perhaps concern at being hurt?

The concept of the 'Anger Iceberg' helps in understanding, then managing, anger - in both ourselves, and our children.

4.  Developmental stage and skills.

How old is your child? Do they have the capacity to self-regulate yet?

Knowing my son was five, and that this was an age of keenly felt and displayed emotion, helped me deal with the situation.

5.  Be Intentional. Make the space to Respond, rather than React.

Trying to think about ‘who owned the problem’ was a guide to being intentional in my response.

Whose unmet need would I respond to first? His, or mine? Then what would I do?

6.  ‘Shift Gears’ – Assert, Empathise and Accept, Assert.

I judged that my son had the primary problem. However, in order for me to help him with his issue, I had to look after myself, and make sure I was safe (I had to first give myself the oxygen).

I both ‘modified the environment’ (held my son at a safe distance from flailing limbs); and asserted my needs with an I-Message.

THEN . . .

I empathised with my son, through Active Listening. This did not mean I agreed with what he was doing. I tried simply to understand what was happening for him, to look beyond his anger, to the emotion leading to his behaviour. My role was to acknowledge his feelings. I hoped this would help him understand himself.

THEN . . .

I came back with another I-Message, before empathising with him again.

This is called ‘Shifting Gears’, a relatively unknown, yet effective, tool in dealing with anger.

Shifting Gears is, as Steven Covey says ‘Seeking to understand, before being understood’, and can change a situation from tension to calm.

7.  Empathise at, or near, the CHILD’S level of emotion.

To truly empathise with a highly emotional child, it may help to both name the strength of their feeling, and show we understand their feelings.

When we communicate to our children that we are sincerely trying to understand the depth of their upset, perhaps we could try changing our tone of voice, even our volume, to just below that of our child.

That is, pitch our voice just under our child’s emotional level, so that we can lead our children to a more peaceful place.

We could respond to ‘I HATE YOU!’ with ‘I’VE REALLY ANNOYED YOU!”

As the parent, I am calm and in control of my emotions, because I have not taken my child’s statement personally. I am thinking about how to respond. But I am not ‘professional-counsellor-calm’. I am not being bland, neutral or toneless in my feedback, but engaged.

When I am real, rather than remote, I am connecting at a level where my child can hear me. I continue to be aware of both his emotions, AND mine.

(This article expands on the concept of matching emotions).

8.  Relationship

I need to keep sight of the relationship between my child and myself. How will we feel towards each other after this exchange?


The Scene:

Sitting on my haunches, I held my son at a safe distance, looking him in the eye. Then, in a loud voice pitched just under his emotional level, I began the following dialogue.

Mum (asserting needs):




Mum (empathising with Active Listening, in a loud, intense voice):


Ben (almost reluctantly agreeing, screams):


Mum (Active Listening):


Ben (screaming, but at a lower pitch):


Mum (Shifting Gears to be assertive again):

“I don’t like being hit or kicked!”

Ben (immediately putting his hands over his ears):

“I don’t want to talk!”

Mum (has an 'aha' moment, realising that a 5 year old boy might, developmentally, prefer to show his emotions physically):

“It feels better to hit and kick. You don’t feel as good when you just talk about how angry you are!”



Mum (Active Listening, but this time at lowered emotional level):

“The best way for you is to hit and kick”


“Talking is not as exciting as hitting and kicking!”

Mum (both assertive and problem solving):

“The only way for you is to kick. The problem is, that hurts me. And I don’t want to be hurt. What about a pillow? Can you think of something else?”


“No!! Nothing feels as good to kick than you!”


“Well, that’s really not OK with me . . . . “

By this time my son had stopped kicking me, which was my immediate desired outcome. Once he was calm, I could talk with him about what happened. Very soon, we began to have a normal, pleasant conversation. Importantly, there was no residual anger or resentment on my part. There was, however, a sense of love, warmth and respect in our relationship.

Why Did This Process Work?

When I did not take my son’s hitting personally, I could be intentional in my response. By seeing my son as separate from me I treated him as a human being. I discovered that by responding to his emotions in tone, and words, we could connect with a mutual and genuine understanding.

The bottom line? Our relationship remained in tact, becoming even closer.

POSTSCRIPT: The Boy Becomes A Man

Please be reassured. My five-year-old bundle of kinetic energy became a person of calm, inner strength, determination, empathy, and compassion. And with excellent self-regulation and respectful relationship skills!

*not his real name

** Parent Effectiveness Training, P.E.T.

First published 16th February, 2018. Updated 20th February, 2018. Photo: Shutterstock.

© Larissa Dann 2018

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